Saturday, August 14, 2010

The Art of Discouragement

It's an amazing and fragile thing, the human ego. We verbalize that we need encouragement, await kind words that let us know that something we are doing measures up with our family and our peers. Encouragement from a perfect stranger seems to be even more welcome because they really have no stake in bringing words of approval, like maybe our mom would. Giving encouragement to another is like speaking life into their dreams especially if one is taking on something new. There will always be that small voice in the back of our minds, whispering in our ear that we can't do what we set out to or that we are not good enough. It's just a fact of life. It is amazing how attentive it is to what others say to us if we don't know how to manage it.

I started noticing an interesting phenomenon with myself over the last 5 years or so. I started paying attention to how I reacted to what people said and situations in which others would speak "words of wisdom" to me, particularly discouragement. Why I honed in on discouragement is easy. It stands out because while you may be encouraged far more than discouraged, negative comments seem to have far more weight and a bigger effect on your outlook on things. Close your eyes and think of something that you were working on, something you were proud of. Maybe you were making a career change or trying something new. Perhaps you started a new business venture. Think about how excited you were. You wanted to tell everyone what it was that you were working on. It was special to you. I want you to think of a time when someone said words to you about that dream you had that were damaging. Maybe they told you "that business is hard to break into" or "I knew a friend or had a brother who did that, it didn't work out". Ponder the feelings that were attached to hearing those words. Chances are you will feel them quite readily. You probably recalled them more than once and possibly the same words when you took on another challenge. Now think about all the people that encouraged you along the way in your venture. What did they say? Can you think of more than one? How do those feelings resonate. Not the same I am sure.

The way discouragement effects us is something of an art. Why is it that hundreds of people can give us hugs, smiles, life-giving words, help us realize our dreams, listen intently while we talk about something important, all those people that want us to feel good about ourselves and yet one person can say one thing that could completely change our outlook on the outcome of our goals. One person? Yes, one person. One person can get us thinking and recalculating our plan in an instant. Reverifying our plans to make sure we hadn't missed anything based on their observations or negative experiences seems in order as we think about what they said. We will repeat those words back to those that have always encouraged us and they will say "don't pay attention to them" but we do. A discouraging remark from a second person can send us doubting our abilities. What about the others who have been standing by us, bringing us along with their support? What about them? Doesn't what they say and do for us matter?

Here is where my analysis comes in. I started paying attention to the people that would say things to me when I would speak of my dreams or what I projects I had been working on. I began to slow down the conversation in my mind, not react and try to gain some perspective as to why they would say the things they would say. One recent exchange was a stranger that I met at a party on the beach. Since I don't know a lot of people where I am currently living, when people meet me they usually have a lot of questions such as where I am from, what my marital status is and what I do for work. I was speaking with one woman about my career change from Sales professional to writer and the first book that I have been working on. A man that had been walking by to the food table stopped and stood behind my listener as I was telling her about the context of the book, what my plans were for its completion and how far along I was. As we were conversing, the stranger interjected. Barreling himself into the conversation unannounced, my listener spun around to see who was talking. He began with the statement that his brother had written a book and he had no success in getting it published. He continued to say that I shouldn't count on my book being a success since I was a new writer. It is just too hard to debut a book from an author no one has heard of. He wrapped up his expert advice to me by saying he was just trying to help me be realistic with my plans. With those words, he walked away. Why on earth would someone want to do that to a person they had never even met before? What benefited him in bringing his brothers experience to my attention and then following it up as proof that my dreams would folly? There can be lots of reasons why his brother's book was not a success. Content, context, writing style, timing and type of publisher can all be the make or break of a new book. It may have been that his brother only approached one publisher or that he might not have sought the help he could have used to get his manuscript read by the right people. I'll never know but someone's bad experience doesn't mean everyone else's dreams are doomed to fail. The problem is, I think about what he said a lot. Thankfully I can dismiss it when it comes to mind but it is looming in the back of my brain somewhere, pricking at my optimism.
People with negative outlooks on life usually tend to cause a lot of their own failure. They are easily turned away from what they pursue because they are always looking for evidence that what they are doing is going to fail. They tend to almost overlook their successes. They try to temper another's ambitions with negativity disguised as "being realistic". They like to discourage because it makes them feel better about the times that they've missed out on success. They don't even mean to be so damaging. Perhaps they grew up in a home with other negative people and discouragement was served as routinely as breakfast before school. Negative people tend to like to be around like-minded people so they are usually being fed the same messages, over and over again. Do you know any really successful negative people? I don't.

I have had the great experience of doing some work with the MIT Sloan School of Management in my Sales career. They have a club and a contest every year for their MBA program that teaches these candidates concepts and skills with Sales that they will need to be successful in likely founding their own businesses. When I have helped with their annual International Sales Competition with other renowned business schools that span the globe, I have had the pleasure of spending time with some of the best and brightest minds in business. We come together to judge the competition of the candidates. I sit shoulder to shoulder with people who hold executive positions with some of the largest and most successful international businesses out there. You would readily recognize the logos on their business cards. I tell you this because their outlook on life and pursuit of dreams is markedly different than that of the "Negative Nelly/Ned". These individuals to be sure have had many failures. They've been fired, had businesses fail, had key projects implode and invested in things that didn't pan out. Given their stories, some would have wondered why they kept going. Maybe business or invention wasn't really for them. Isn't that what our negative friends would say? I am sure they heard plenty of those words. I am positive that they remember them as well but they didn't let it deter them from what they had set out to achieve. They are positive people. They are not fixed on the failing but looking for the keys to achieve the goal in mind. They have learned that failing is part of success and there is no need to fear or turn away, it is more or less just a part of the process not a marker for abilities or outcomes. When you talk to these folks about ideas and goals, they get excited. They want to encourage and impart wisdom in the right way. They will be all too willing to point you to people they know can help you be successful. It is like as a rite of passage for achievement. They have a duty to help others be successful in any way they can and they do.

So it comes to this. Do you want to listen to a person who has perfected the art of discouragement and who is likely not successful in their goals either or do you want to learn from positive people who have failed and persevered to come out shining in the end? How will you let the comments of others affect how you pursue your career, realize your dreams or your future? I encourage you to spend some time with a successful person this week. Someone who has done something you admire and just take in their being. If you don't know any, I have plenty of numbers to give you. They'd be happy to talk.

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